I’m really looking forward to Peter Strickland’s In Fabric this year, so a look back at his amazing debut is appropriate. Katalin Varga is a richly textured revenge story. It’s the kind of film that makes you want to shoot on 16mm for all of the rough beauty it captures.
Hilda Péter is the title character, who goes on a trip with her son, Orbán (Norbert Tankó) for some kind of deep-seeded vengeance. It’s best not to say much else. It’s not so much that Katalin Varga is full of twists and turns – its plotting is in some ways rather frank and straightforward – but instead that it’s executed so perfectly and the relationships between characters are drawn so well.
Strickland shot in the Carpathians and he captures a lot of gorgeous wides:
I’m really curious if Strickland speaks Romanian. He gets such great performances throughout, including some from people who feel like non-actors in the best way:
That second frame above is a nice example of how Strickland gets tension. Given some of the narrative we already have, that man holding the woman frame right is made all the more dangerous. The slightly canted angle, the harsh contrasty lighting, the low angle all add to it.
I love a lot of Strickland’s other technique in here. Here’s a shot he returns to more than once:
It feels symbolic. Mother and son on a horse drawn wagon that isn’t moving. It’s hard to find these symbols. The horse’s movement adds to it. It’s like the stasis and progression of their journey at once, and it really emphasizes their closeness.
He isn’t afraid to let frames go really black-
-to shoot in silhouette (love this shot)-
-and to shoot handheld that feels free and improvisational:
Two of the best moments of the film are highly stylized. Katalin encounters a particular man at a bonfire dance. Strickland shoots it so close and loose:
We really have to follow her looks, and we see her entire attempt at flirtation, wordlessly. We’re on the other side of the fire, or being looked at. It’s really effective.
Later, Katalin delivers an amazing monologue on a boat. Strickland shoots it mostly in singles, but for the most part eschews reaction shots (there are some, but we’re dominantly on Katalin). Towards the end of the monologue he pushes in on her:
It’s an intense moment, filled with the sound of rain and water, where Péter’s performance is perfectly angry and casual. Her body language is so relaxed. When just after this she leans all the way back in the boat it’s like she’s a little kid. Maybe she is and has just freed herself of her burden; we can also feel rage seething underneath it all.